Critical Secularism: A Reintroduction for Perilous Times

Critical Secularism: A Reintroduction for Perilous Times(pdf)
An essay by Aamir Mufti on Edward Said's "secular criticism". Interesting.


Next to impossible to figure out Mufti’s ideas. The written style is so thick and obscure, like a yellow pea soup. He insouciantly refers to a multitude of intellectuals and theories that are do not all agree with one another. It is like reading the academic equivalent of the rat-tat of an automatic machine gun.

Take a look at this sentence, picked up at random:

“Against the universalist and leveling tendencies of classic secularist thought and institutions, one strategy of revision proposed by contributors to this issue is to rethink the ‘‘vernacular’’ itself as a space for a refashioning of the secular, as in Judy’s essay, but also in Bishnupriya Ghosh’s reading of what she calls ‘‘postcolonial spectrology,’’
the haunting of global Englishes by the repressed vernacular languages and
their literatures in the former colonies.”

I feel nearly panicky when I read something like this: what’s “postcolonial spectrology’’? What does it mean “the ‘‘vernacular’’ itself” is “a space for a refashioning of the secular”?

On the same page (7) a claim is made (if I dare presume to understand) that there is an essential difference between Wahabiism and Salafi’sm. And the father of Salafist theology, Qutb, the founder of “The Muslim Brotherhood” in Egypt can be regarded as a “secularizing figure”! Doesn’t that rather miss the point that both theologies, popular in the Arabp Islamic world, might have their own casuistrious disputes among themselves, but are extremely oppressive and xenophobic? And Qutb, who regarded American women dancing as the embodiment of immorality and promiscuity, is a secularizing figure?

I almost heaved a sigh of relief when I fell upon more familiar ground, which I think is probably the very point of this exercise: Israel’s perfidy. P. 5 is littered with examples. Here is one, breathtaking in its revisionism of history and reversal of reason:

“He asked of Israelis and Israel’s Jewish supporters elsewhere
only the basic decency of acknowledging that their deliverance from
annihilation in Europe had come at the cost of the Palestinians, who had paid a steep price for it.”

“their deliverance from annihilation in Europe”?? There were some 7 or 8 million Jews before 1939. 6 were exterminated. It takes a real giant leap of faith to claim that Jews were delivered from annihilation.

More, in the next comment.
About Said’s alleged phenomenal generosity (as stated without so much as a blink on p. 5), here is probably a good explanation how he came by it:

1. In July 1927, the Peel Commision issued a report, in which the following was incribed:

"Considering what the possibility of finding a refuge in Palestine means to thousands of suffering Jews, is the loss occasioned by Partition, great as it would be, more than Arab generosity can bear?"

2. In one of the most chilling testimonies in the Kastner Trial:

"Brand later testified that Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident in the Middle East and a close friend of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was present during one of the interrogations and is alleged to have said: "What can I do with this million Jews? Where can I put them?"

The first statement was written in 1937, when the world was beginning to get wise to what was being planned for the Jews, but even so, the report can only imagine "thousands" of suffering Jews getting a lease on life if permitted to immigrate to Palestine.

The second statement is made in 1944, when most of the world was already familiar with the dire reports that kept coming from Europe about the annihilation of millions of Jews.

In the interim, the British Mandate restricted severely Jewish immigration, in spite of the warning in the Peel report that things looked very bad for the Jews in Europe. The Peel Report does not say that the land is saturated to the point where it can no longer accept more immigrants. Quite the contrary. It stipulates the urgent importance of continued Jewish immigration and British commitment to it. Yet the British restricted immigration, because they buckled to Arab pressure to do so.

The Arabs of Palestine, though addressed with the most explicit plea in the report to show "generosity" to the persecuted Jews of Europe, existentially threatened, did not for a second consider this possibility and continued to mount their pressure on the British to seal the borders. When there was hardly a country in the world open to accept Jewish refugees fleeing from Hitler's ominous programmes, Mandate Palestine, which had been commissioned with the provision of a safe haven for Jews, chose to close ranks with the Arabs and seal the borders, against the Jews.

The only place that would have welcomed these refugees and could have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, joined the rest of the world's complicity in these crimes.

Today, the staple Palestinian argument is that they had no responsibility whatsoever for what happened to the Jews. But they did. They bear at least the same responsibility as as every country that ever refused to accept Jews who were looking to get out of Europe.

It takes some chutzpa to attribute “generosity” to Said’s position towards Israel, when he totally failed to acknowledge this history, but also went to a great deal of trouble to legitimize Palestinian mythical narrative. That fabled narrative is treated as a given, indisputable truth in this article.


BTW, the intrinsic dissonance which characterizes this paper can best be exemplified in this statement, which simply does not make sense:

"With his sudden passing on September 25, 2003, long feared by those close to him and yet somehow unexpected,"

Everyone who was remotely interested in Said for whatever reason knew he was dying. How can his death have been "sudden" or "unexpected" if it was "long feared"?
bob said…
Thanks for the - as always - insightful and incisive comments Noga. Yes, there is a lot of academic gobbledegook in the article. I thought I read the whole thing (I printed out the pdf), but I realise I never got to the end. The material from the end of the article, about the contributions in the same journal, is terrible. I do not dare look at Spivak's contribution, and Ronald Judy's, on the basis of this precis, looks like nonsense. The idea of Qutb as a secularizing figure seems on the face of it insane - although it is certainly correct to think of him as a modernizing figure, rather than an archaism as some anti-Islamist accounts have it.

Israel's perfidy: perhaps that is the nub of it. When I read the word "neo-con" (as in the quote you cite, although it is presumably paraphrasing Judy), my radars immediately prick up.

I am still undecided about Said's "generosity". I see Said as a contradictory figure, at some moments going "to a great deal of trouble to legitimize Palestinian mythical narrative", at other times puncturing the narrative. Certainly, Mufti is right to say that more "militant" pro-Palestinian activists saw him as too kind to Zionism, which ought to give some pause for thought.

Finally, your point about “their deliverance from annihilation in Europe” is spot-on.

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